The Alabaster Coast of Normandy in northern France made a big impact on the Impressionist painters. Gillian Thornton took a scenic coastal drive to find out why.
Stretching from Le Tréport in the north to Le Havre in the south, the dramatic coastline of Seine-Maritime earns its name – the Côte d’Albâtre – from the towering white chalk cliffs that dominate the undulating shoreline. The Impressionists loved a chalk cliff so as a big fan of their work, I’ve come to see for myself the landscapes they loved.
Heading down by car from Calais, I cross from the Hauts-de-France region into Normandy at Le Tréport on the Bresle estuary. Walk the bustling quayside and relax on the beach. Don’t miss the funicular up the chalk cliffs to enjoy sweeping views over coast and countryside. I’m no painter but already I can understand why artists are captivated by the big skies and ever-changing light here.
Don’t leave Le Tréport without taking a mini-detour to Eu, a small inland town of just 7,000 residents. Eu’s chateau was a favourite home of France’s last king, Louis Philippe. It’s here that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed in 1843 for the signing of the first Entente Cordiale, a diplomatic agreement between France and Great Britain. Louis-Philippe lived his final years in exile in England after being forced to abdicate in 1848. However his beautifully restored Norman mansion still boasts exquisite parquet floors, a priceless art collection, and extensive gardens. Nor was Victoria the only English monarch to make her mark on Eu. William of Normandy married Matilda of Flanders here in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, some 15 years before they became King and Queen of England in 1066.
Back on the coast road, I stop in the bustling fishing port of Dieppe. Its deep water harbour is protected by those signature white cliffs. France’s first ever seaside resort, Dieppe became popular with Parisians from 1822. This got it the attention of Impressionists such as Camille Pissaro who painted the inner harbour in 1902. Look out for reproductions of Impressionist paintings all along the Alabaster Coast in the exact places where the artists placed their easels.
Today Dieppe is classified as a French Art and History Town. , I stop to learn about its seafaring and trading traditions, as well as its Impressionist connections at the museum in the hilltop castle. Just west of Dieppe is Varengeville-sur-Mer. Here you’ll find the 12th century church of St Valery, renowned for its coastal views and sailors’ cemetery. Master Impressionist Claude Monet painted the exterior of St Valery from many angles, but look inside too. The Tree of Jesse stained glass window is the work of Georges Braque who died in 1963 and is buried in the churchyard.
For a very small place, Veules-les-Roses packs a pretty picturesque punch. There are period cottages and ancient watermills, seaside villas and a sandy beach. And there are more clues in the name. Nestled in the wooded valley through which La Veules, France’s shortest river, runs, the narrow streets are splashed with the colour of roses of every hue during the summer months.
Victor Hugo was a big fan of the village, coming here regularly in the late 19th century. One hundred and fifty years later, Veules-les-Roses is still popular. It’s a gem of the Alabaster Coast and the only community in the Seine-Maritime department of Normandy that is classified amongst the Plus Beaux Villages de France.
Beyond Veules-les-Roses, bustling with visitors on market day, I find another Valery, the pretty port of St-Valery-en-Caux with its small harbour nestled between high chalk cliffs. Then it’s on to the fishing port of Fécamp. Hardy fishermen in centuries past set off from Fécamp and Dieppe to fish for cod off Newfoundland. Discover their story at the excellent Fisheries Museum, housed in a converted fish-smoking and packing building beside the harbour.
There are circular views from the seventh floor roof terrace. You’ll get a tantalising glimpse of the extraordinary Benedictine Palace in the heart of the old town. Benedictine liqueur was reputedly created in the 16th century by a Benedictine monk named Dom Bernado Vincelli, using a secret mix of 27 plants and spices.
The formula was lost in the French Revolution. But in 1863, local wine merchant Alexandre Le Grand found the recipe! He recreated the drink, and commissioned a flamboyant turreted mansion in its honour. A combination of museum and art gallery, it holds the distinction of being the world’s only distillery for Benedictine liqueur.
Le Grand’s art collection spans sacred to modern art and is as eclectic as the building he commissioned.
Every new coastal view reminds me why the Impressionist painters were so enamoured of Normandy’s light and landscape. But the place I most want to see with my own eyes is Etretat with its famous rock arch attached to the Aval cliff. I’m thrilled to catch a distant view over a sunset aperitif in the garden of the Domaine de Saint-Clair hotel just outside town. However I’m gutted next morning to wake to thick sea mist. Despite the June heatwave, Monet’s iconic subject is barely visible, even from the beach.
But after my initial disappointment I console myself with the thought that Monet loved to capture changing weather conditions. If I look on this as a Moody Monet Moment, 50 Shades of Grey suddenly takes on a very different connotation!
As the sun burns off the morning mist, I head up to the Amont cliff to visit the magical Etretat Gardens. This extraordinary topiary garden includes – no surprise – a reproduction in wicker of Monet at work, complete with palette and easel.
My final stop on the Alabaster Coast is somewhere I’ve never really wanted to go, but feel I really should. Le Havre. This busy commercial port at the mouth of the Seine was bombed to near oblivion during World War II, leaving 80,000 homeless. Little remains of the original town. It was also the accidental birthplace of Impressionism in 1872 when Claude Monet painted a shadowy picture entitled ‘Impression. Sunrise’, dubbed by a disparaging art critic as Impressionism.
Thanks to the vision of celebrated architect August Perret and his team, Le Havre was rebuilt in the 1950s with broad avenues, public open spaces, and concrete apartment blocks. But despite the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status, I’ve never had any great desire to see it. Big mistake. The innovative period design turns out to be far more attractive than I imagined. Don’t miss the church of St Joseph, Perret’s masterpiece, nor the Perret Show Flat, full of 1950’s nostalgia.
But the real treat for me is MuMa – the Museum of Modern Art André Malrau. It houses the second-largest Impressionist collection outside Paris. The young Monet was encouraged by established artist Eugène Boudin from nearby Honfleur, widely considered as the ‘master of skies’ for his seascapes with racing clouds and wide horizons. Boudin never considered himself an Impressionist but he takes his rightful place here in Le Havre’s glorious quayside museum alongside Monet and his contemporaries.
Thanks to those pioneer painters, art lovers all over the world have discovered the beauty of Normandy’s Alabaster Coast. See it with your own eyes however, and you might just find yourself reaching for the paintbox!
Sail direct to Normandy with DFDS (Newhaven-Dieppe) and Brittany Ferries (Portsmouth to Le Havre and Caen-Ouistreham. Le Havre is just over 2 hours by train from Paris St Lazare. For visitor information, see www.seine-maritime-tourism.com
Gillian Thornton is a writer who specialises in France and lifestyle.